Authors: Gregg Vann
They watched as all four guard towers rotated their main searchlights toward the inner courtyard, and then another series of lights activated within the walls, making it seem like the entire compound was glowing.
“They know,” Tana said. “They know…”
“We need to get the hell out of here,” Barent replied. “Now.”
“Follow me,” she said.
Tana led them to a narrow alleyway about a dozen meters ahead and they darted into it, stopping at a side entrance to one of the buildings adjacent to the subway station. Tana withdrew some tools from her backpack and began deftly picking the lock.
“We’ll be trapped if we go in there,” Barent protested. “I thought you said these were all government buildings.”
“Trust me,” Tana said.
Barent was unconvinced, yet smart enough to realize that Tana was far more familiar with modern Le’sant than he was. He knew he had little choice but to follow her lead.
“Very well,” he acquiesced.
Tana pulled the door open and they crept inside. Then she silently closed it again, resetting the lock in case anyone searching for them decided to check it. They found themselves in a darkened hallway—one of many branching off from a wide central corridor approximately five meters ahead of them. And they saw offices on both sides of where they crouched, thankfully unoccupied. Tana heard voices coming from somewhere, and she motioned for Barent to remain behind while she crept forward to investigate.
The main corridor was well lit, and as Tana peeked around the corner she observed two people off in the distance, approaching her position. They both wore clothing identifying them as Collective administrators, and Tana ducked further into the shadows as they drew near. She stealthily moved back up to the corner after they passed by, and then waved a hand for Barent to join her. When the administrators disappeared behind a door at the end of the corridor, she and Barent rushed across to the other side where the lifts waited. Tana punched the control panel and one of them opened up, and then they went inside where she selected the roof as their destination.
“Why the roof?” Barent asked her.
“We’re taking the thieves’ highway, Sergeant. You’re in my backyard now. Just do as I say and everything will be fine.”
Tana smiled. “You’re just going to have to trust me, Sergeant Barent.”
The lift slid to a stop, and they stepped through a small room and out onto the roof. From this height they could see directly down into the courtyard of Barent’s tomb across the street, and though the tower lights had returned to their usual positions, and everything
normal, Tana knew better. She turned toward Barent and found him staring out beyond the mausoleum; his expression was equal parts shock and confusion.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Barent continued to look out at the city as he replied. “It is…
Le’sant extends out as far as the eye can see.” It took a great deal of effort, but Barent managed to pull himself away from the mesmerizing lights of the city, shifting his gaze to Tana. “I didn’t think you were lying to me,” he said. “But this…”
“If you could see it in the daylight you’d know how far it really goes. The Outland is barely lit.”
“Maybe one day I will,” Barent replied wistfully. But then he pushed every shred of emotion aside and Tana heard a pronounced change in his voice. “But not today. What’s your plan?”
“We’re going to leap off this building and over to that one,” Tana explained, pointing at a slightly shorter structure on the other side of the alley. “Then we’re going to move across a dozen or so others using the same method—until we’re past the checkpoints in the streets, and much nearer to our destination.” Tana paused to make sure Barent was paying close attention to what she said next. “I want you to watch where I land on each roof, Sergeant, and then replicate my jumps exactly. You
hit where I hit. No closer. No further. Got it?”
Tana began running as fast as she could and then sailed over the edge, tucking herself into a ball as she landed in the middle of a rubber water cistern on the roof of the adjacent building. She rolled off of it and stood back, and then watched as Barent launched himself through the air, precisely replicating her feat.
He is fearless
, Tana thought to herself. Many experienced thieves balked at the idea of getting around the city like this, but Barent hadn’t even questioned it.
Tana had been using the method for years; it was one of the true secrets of her success. Hoverlifts were great for going straight up and down—perfect for reaching the high windows of the choice apartments where the rich lived. But the machines were designed for use in the construction and maintenance of the skyrises, not as a means of transportation, and were slow and unsteady during long, lateral movements. Hoverlifts were also extremely conspicuous, not to mention dangerous when trying to wobble them from building to building. So Tana often found herself leaping in and out of the wealthier districts by rooftop instead, to avoid the ever-present police patrols and checkpoints.
“Not bad,” she told Barent. “Not bad at all. But there are still several more jumps to go before we’re close enough to the rendezvous point to head back down to the street again. Are you ready?”
They continued their way across the city as a seasoned team, instead of two people who’d only met a couple of hours earlier. In fact, Tana was so confident in Barent’s abilities by the time they reached the final roof, that instead of waiting for him to make sure he landed correctly, she walked over to the edge of the building to lean out and take a look.
She saw Major Kline standing at the base of an apartment building across the street, waiting for her on the sidewalk out front just as he’d promised. Tana heard a dull thud behind her signaling Barent’s arrival, and then he walked up stand at her side. But when he looked down, Barent noticed something Tana hadn’t.
“Is that him,” he asked.
“And who are
Barent pointed out four men hidden in the shadows—two each on either side of the apartment building, silently sidling up behind the unsuspecting Warden. He and Tana both drew their weapons and ran toward the lift. They understood that yelling a warning to Kline wouldn’t make any difference; it would only hasten the attack. They’d need to
there to stop what was coming. When the door finally opened up on the ground floor, the pair dashed through the lobby and out into the street.
By the time they got there the four assailants were already on him, and Major Kline was in a frenzied battle for his life. But despite being heavily outnumbered, the Warden was holding his own. To Barent, it looked like they were trying to take Kline alive, but one of the attackers saw them crossing the street to help and called out a warning, and then he backed away from the Warden and shot him squarely in the chest.
As Kline fell to the ground, the attackers spun toward Tana and Barent, preparing to fire. Tana’s eyes went wide as she chose a target, but before she could pull the trigger she saw the heads of all four assailants snap back violently. Then they simply collapsed onto the sidewalk. Tana looked over to see white wisps of smoke drifting from the barrels of both Barent’s pistols, realizing that he’d killed each of them with a single shot to the head.
“How the hell did you—?” Tana began, her tone incredulous.
But Barent ignored her and ran over to Major Kline, kneeling down to help the Warden sit up. A quick look told Barent that the wound was fatal, and he knew Kline didn’t have much longer to live.
Ignoring the pain, Major Kline raised his head, smiling when he saw the face of the Great Betrayer. “It was true, then. You really are alive.”
“I am,” Barent replied. “Thanks to you, Warden.”
“I hope…I hope I’ve earned that title.”
“With honor,” Barent assured him.
Kline’s body jerked once, and then his eyes slid closed as a final breath escaped his lips. Barent gently laid him back down on the sidewalk and looked over at Tana. She witnessed the anger rising on his face, and detected the barely suppressed rage in Barent’s voice when he spoke.
“The Collective?” he asked.
“No doubt,” Tana said, watching Barent’s expression grow even harder.
Torvus’ sun would be rising soon, and Tana knew that in little more than an hour, even this small side-road would be filled with people. “I know you don’t want to leave him like this, Sergeant Barent. And neither do I. But we have to go. We have to go
“Of course,” Barent replied. “You’re right.”
He reluctantly got up and holstered his pistols, but then Tana saw Barent’s eyes narrow, followed by a look of concern.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Tana, if they knew about Major Kline, then they probably know about the other Wardens as well. Including those holding your friend.”
She immediately realized Barent was right and Tana’s heart sank. A sense of dread overcame her, and Tana’s hands began to shake. But it had nothing to do with the cold.
“We have to move fast,” she said. “I know a few shortcuts.”
“Lead the way,” Barent told her.
They quickly made their way out of the Central District, abandoning the rooftops for a lengthy access road running behind one of the Middle District’s store-lined thoroughfares. Barent noted the abrupt change in building methods and materials as soon as they crossed into the Common Ring—the gleaming onyx surfaces and shiny metal disappeared completely, replaced by much simpler structures built out of wood, and what appeared to be some form of concrete. The well-ordered streets and wide avenues eventually vanished as well, swapped for a haphazardly constructed maze that defied nearly every tenet of civil planning.
When they finally got close to where she lived, Tana brought them in through an alleyway so narrow they had to turn sideways to get through it. They emerged on the other side directly across from her apartment. Tana could see that her lights were turned on in the window above, but there was no sign of movement inside the apartment. She looked down the street in both directions.
“I don’t see any police or military vehicles around,” she whispered.
“Then maybe we got here in time,” Barent replied.
Tana held out hope that everything would be okay as they raced across the street and into the building.
They were too late.
As Tana pushed the door open Barent flew inside the apartment, pivoting both pistols around in wide arcs as he searched for trouble. But the danger had already passed. They spotted Tana’s defgun lying in shattered pieces on the ground, right next to three bodies.
Sri and the two Wardens.
Tana put her gun away and knelt down beside Sri, cupping her cheek in one hand, and brushing a few strands of blonde hair away from her face with the other. She saw that all three of them had been bound with their hands behind their backs. And even though they’d been rendered completely harmless, the Collective killed them anyway.
, Tana thought, staring down at her vacant eyes—eyes that just hours earlier had been so full of life.
This is my fault. If not for me she would still be in prison…and safe.
Barent placed a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, and his words made Tana think he could see straight into her mind.
“It’s not your fault,” Barent said. “The Collective killed your friend, and they alone are responsible for her death. This was nothing
did, and there’s nothing you could have done to stop it.”
“I could have been here,” Tana said, her anger overcoming the despair in her voice.
“And most likely been killed yourself.”
Tana looked down at Sri’s face again and fought back the tears. Sri had made so many bad choices, living her life in a constant struggle against a host of demons. But Tana knew that her heart was good. Maybe under better circumstances they could have built a life together, but who in Le’sant ever got
. Except for the Collective, of course, and the puppets who served them.
Like the ones who killed Sri.
“She didn’t deserve this,” Tana said, her voice cracking.
“None of you do,” Barent replied.
He walked over to the window and looked outside, noticing more people in the street as the city began to wake. “I’m sorry, Tana, but we have to go; the Collective are sure to come back here and cover up what they’ve done. Is there any place in Le’sant where we can hide until we figure out what to do next? Somewhere in the city where the Collective can’t reach?”
“Yes,” Tana said, continuing to stare down at the bodies. “We can go to the Outland slums; they won’t look for us there. No one goes to that place by choice.”
“Okay,” Barent said. “Gather up anything you might need and let’s get out of here.”
Tana pulled Sri’s eyes closed and stood up, and then she looked around the little apartment, surveying all of the things she’d spent a lifetime collecting. Tana’s prized possessions seemed so worthless now, and she realized there wasn’t a single object in any of the crates that she couldn’t live without. But it wouldn’t have mattered even if there were, because Tana would be on the run now. She couldn’t possibly lug her stuff through the streets of Le’sant, and certainly not the desperate alleyways of the Outland.
Tana walked over to the bookcase and grabbed her original copy of Barent’s treatises.
“I’m ready,” she said.
“A book,” Barent remarked. “
what you need?”
“It’s what we all need right now,” Tana replied—her voice was steady and full of purpose as she dropped it into her backpack and headed for the door.
“And besides…” she added, darting ahead of Barent as they ran down the stairs.
“Wait till you hear who wrote it.”
* * *
It was daylight by the time they emerged from Tana’s apartment, so they kept to the back alleys, cautiously making their way toward the nearest open section of the wall. Unlike the barriers separating the other districts of Le’sant, the crossways between the Common Ring and the Outland weren’t guarded or patrolled. Tana worried that with the Collective out searching for Sergeant Barent they might have tightened security here just as a precaution, but there was no one stationed at the makeshift gate as they approached it. Apparently, they hadn’t thought to look for Barent this far out yet, probably assuming he was hiding somewhere much closer to the city center.